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On the night my father died, I was knitting a scarf.

It was a ridiculous scarf, all pink and orange with hairy tendrils exploding from each stitch.  It was like something a chia pet would wear if it were attempting to be extravagantly redundant. I could imagine my niece at Christmas picking up the package, giving it a shake, and then clawing it open, unleashing it from its confines to burst open in her hands like a Pop Rocks sunrise.

Behind me, the door whispered open and the hospice nurse approached my dad’s bedside.  We made eye contact, she clearly aware of her own intrusion and me feeling oddly embarrassed.  I don’t know if I can explain the feeling.  There is something about watching someone close to you die that is extremely personal. It’s like being sick in the bathroom at a party – it should be done behind closed doors with a guardian staged at the outside: she’s fine, she wants to be alone, I’ve asked her already if I can help and she doesn’t want anybody around.

Before me, my father lay stretched out on his back, his face heavenward. His body was more or less catatonic, but I imagine his mind was as active as it could be after a few weeks of pureed nursing home food and the steady application of a morphine patch.

I had a strong urge to make him laugh.

He had always managed to make me laugh.

Once when I got bailing wire caught in my throat in an unfortunate church Youth Group incident, he took me to the emergency room late at night wearing the most horrendous pair of jeans. They were hip-hugging patchwork bellbottoms acquired in Italy circa 1965. It being the early 90s, the world was not yet ready for their return.

Having worked in college administration most of his life, he regularly wore three-piece suits and ties to work — every hair of his silver coif sprayed back into place, his shoes shining like hubcaps. I associate the smell of shoe polish with him. But when the weekends would hit and leisurewear was required, he would apparently become confused and start grabbing anything he had worn at one time or another over the previous decades of his life, no matter how outdated or threadbare.

Those patchwork jeans were evidence of his confusion.

To add to my teenage embarrassment of his outfit choice that night, Dad insisted on ‘cool walking’ down the hall to the examining room. Do not be fooled. ‘Cool walking’ is nothing if not a tragically ironic misnomer. He’d sort of strut, dipping his hips as he walked, swinging his arms. Usually he only did it at home for our benefit, my sisters and me giggling from the kitchen table. But that night, his courage bolstered by his hipster patchwork jeans, he did it in the wide inappropriate open. The teenage bailing-wire-stuck-in-her-throat version of myself should have been horrified. But really. What could I do but laugh?

My fingers gathered up a yard or so of scarf and compressed it into a ball around the needles, little pink and orange hairs sticking out through the creases of my fingers giving me the knuckles of a Jim Henson’s Muppet.  From the bed, his breaths didn’t change with the nurse’s approach.  They barely sounded organic – the deep, raspy mechanical sound of bellows running on automatic.  She stared at her watch, bobbing her forehead to the numbers in her head.

Earlier that afternoon she had stood in the exact same spot with another nurse.  The sheets were thrown back from the bottom up, landing on him mid-chest to expose a pair of cancer eaten bird legs.  Skin coating bone like a shroud. Notice the mottling pattern on his knees, they said.  He doesn’t have long.  It’s one of the signs, they said.  I looked away from a pair of legs I did not recognize and wish I could forget.

This was not worthy of my father. My father was a dignified man. He was an educator. A traveler. An ambassador. A hard worker, a singer, a hummer, a whistler, a lyricist, an artist, a speaker, a laugher, a storyteller, a mediocre golfer, a horrible trumpet player, an even worse driver, but he was a doer, a believer, a hug-you-close hugger, and the coolest cool walker ever to walk this planet’s crust.

They put the sheet down.

“It won’t be long,” she whispered again after recording her secret numbers.  Counting backwards to zero.

I nodded at her with a smile as if she had just informed me that she had spoken with the chef and that my poached salmon was on the way.  She hesitated as if there was more and I reinstated the smile on my face for her clear benefit, my closed lips holding in questions about numbers and time.  Go check on the salmon, my eyes pleaded.

The corners of my mouth went slack upon her exit and I resumed my task.

Knit one, purl one. Knit one, purl one.

Breathe in, breathe out.  Breathe in, breathe…

We were in a nursing home – a location I detested.  My mother had put him there when she she could no longer take care of him. There was no choice. He had been wandering the house at night and running into things.  Missing things like corners and toilets. Even then, he did not believe he was dying, becoming more and more disconnectedly zealous as the cancer gnawed away his brain.  Jesus was healing him. He would tell anyone who would listen: restaurant servers, friends, bagboys.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the table beside his bed and turned to examine its contents for the hundredth time:  A bottle of hand lotion.  A glass of water with a sponge.  A hymnal.  A pen and pad of paper.  A wrapper left over from one of his morphine patches.  I took a deep breath in and let it all the way out in deliberate syncopation with his.  Put my hand on top of his.  Looked over at his eyes, still focused steadily beyond the cabinet in front of him.  I wanted to do something for him.  If I couldn’t make him laugh, then at least make it easier.  Tell him that it was OK – that we would look after Mom.  He did not even know about her bypass surgery two weeks before. I told him we would take care of her.  She couldn’t be there, but we would take care of her and her broken heart.

Breathe in, breathe out.

His mouth looked so dry.  Earlier that day, I had attempted to sponge a little water into his mouth much like I imagined the people must have done under the cross with the vinegar for a dying Christ.  Since he didn’t move his lips, I sort of parted them for him and gave the sponge a tentative squeeze.  Nothing happened at first.  I was feeling very apostolic when he suddenly erupted into spasms.  He was choking.  Horrified, I stood there with the sponge poised guiltily in my hand.  It died down as quickly as it had started. I returned the sponge to the plate.

I picked up the needles and sang a little while I knitted.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.

I had been singing him this song all day.  Earlier in the week, I had a much broader repertoire – maybe a dozen songs that I had been cycling through: It Is Well With My Soul, Swing Low Sweet Chariot… When Doves Cry.

I may have been grasping.

After a week of wracking my brain for something new and interesting, I had finally given up and had settled on Amazing Grace.  It happened naturally.  Nothing else felt appropriate.

I once was lost, but now am found.  Was blind but now…

I thought that I could detect something different about his breathing, and stopped for a moment to listen mid tune. I wondered if perhaps he was trying to talk to me through his breathing pattern.

I love you.  Tell your mother I love her.  Tell your sisters I love them.

What if he was trying to tell me that he was sick of me singing the same song over and over?

Knit one.  Purl one.

Breathe in.  Breathe out.

I tried to keep up with him so that I was matching him stitch for breath. I had to put the scarf down for a while when at one point, after having fallen behind, I caught myself hoping for a split second that he would slow down so that I could catch up.

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.

I had begun singing again.  By default.

Somewhere behind me, I was aware of the hospice nurse taking up her station at a chair in the back of the room.  I kept singing, in spite of her.

I finished another row.  Something was definitely different about his breathing now. When I set the scarf down on the table beside his bed, I knew that the end was near.  The hospice nurse said, “Hm,” behind me.  The gap between breaths was widening.  I rested my hand on top of his, wondering if he could feel it there.  And then, the borders of his breath released and his breath became free.

In that moment, it was paramount that I record the time.  Feeling remarkably clearheaded, I stood to my feet and faced the whiteboard, jotting down the time with a red marker that squeaked.  I had experienced a similar level of clarity after a car wreck I had been in once.  I had just totaled the car and all I could do was reach into the center compartment for a Tic Tac.  My breath had needed freshening.  I would be talking to paramedics soon.  I needed fresh breath.

11:55pm.

Five minutes until the next day and I wanted to make sure that nobody got it wrong.  I could imagine the nurse saying that it had happened after midnight.  But it hadn’t.  It had happened then.  Right then. The nurse approached the bed.  Took his vitals.  Nothing. I stared at the numbers I had written on the board.  They were clear.  Completely legible.  There would be no confusion.  I should try to close his eyes.

They wouldn’t close.

I imagined then that he was up there somewhere looking down and so I waved at the ceiling, tearing up as I did so. I reached for the scarf.

Behind me, I did not recognize at first that the sounds I was hearing were coming from him. I turned in time to see him convulse violently three times, shaking the whole bed and knocking the table in the process.  For a brief moment, a smile lit up his face.  He exhaled one last time and then…nothing – the lids of his eyes slammed shut like a curtain dropped at the end of a show.

He had smiled.

I was shaking now, and he had smiled.

I turned back to the whiteboard and replaced the final 5 with a 7.  Two minutes had passed.  There had been nothing and then nothing again.  A pause in the workings.  An argument with God.  Behind me, the hospice nurse said, “Well, now.”

I picked up the scarf from off the floor where it had fallen in the commotion and stuffed it in my bag, knowing even as I did so that I would rip it apart the next day.


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ERIKA RAE is the author of Devangelical, a humor memoir about growing up Evangelical (Emergency Press, December, 2012). She is editor-in-chief at Scree Magazine and nonfiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. Erika earned her MA in Lit­er­a­ture and Lin­guis­tics from the Uni­ver­sity of Hong Kong and to this day can ask where the bath­room is in Can­tonese, although it is likely that she will not under­stand the answer. In her dream world, she fan­cies her­self a kung fu mas­ter clev­erly dis­guised as a gen­tle moun­tain dweller, eagerly antic­i­pat­ing dan­ger at the bot­tom of every latte. When she is not whipping one of her 3 children and denying them bread with their broth, she runs an ISP with her husband from their home in the Colorado Rockies.

59 responses to “On the Night My Father Died”

  1. Richard Cox says:

    I love how you sang even with the hospice nurse there. I know I would have felt awkward in that situation, but then again it is your father and these are your last moments with him. Beautiful.

    Where was everyone else?

    • Erika Rae says:

      It’s a little difficult to explain – it WAS awkward. And at the same time, I sort of resented her being there. In a way, I was singing very literally “in spite” of her.

      I suppose I owe an explanation of why I resented a hospice nurse – a person who was there supposedly helping. The truth of the matter is that I was annoyed with her as she kept trying to talk to me about her boyfriend. Ugh. So annoying. Aside from that and sitting at a chair at the back of the room, I’m not quite sure what she did. Later that night ( it was about 12:30am) she called our house, asking the woman who she thought was my mother what we’d like done with “the body.” I hadn’t even made it home yet to inform my mother about dad’s passing. Fortunately, she got my mother-in-law by accident.

      • Erika Rae says:

        Oh – forgot to answer about where everyone else was.

        Mom was home recovering from a bypass surgery (some timing, no?)/
        My 2 sisters had been there, and flew home to briefly check on things as they’d been there in Memphis with us for some time already. We sort of thought he’d hang on a little longer. It sucked being there without them – but I am also thankful for getting to be there. It was a special time, in spite of the awfulness of the situation.

        • Richard Cox says:

          I think being a hospice nurse would be an incredibly difficult job. Not just from the physical nature of caring for a terminally ill person, but also seeing death so much. That being said, I would have preferred her to leave even if she wasn’t going on about her boyfriend. I don’t know how that works from a procedural perspective, but I wouldn’t want her there in that moment. I can understand how you felt that way. It’s an intensely private situation and I wouldn’t have wanted to share it with the nurse. Which may sound terrible, but oh well.

          In any case, you have this special memory forever. The hospice nurse will always be a small part of it, but of course it’s so much more than that.

        • Erika Rae says:

          With credit to the hospice nurses, they actually overall were quite helpful. It was just this particular one. I heard later she was new, which may explain a few things. I mean, I was happy to learn from her that he was good to her kids, that he had recently given her a cubic z necklace and that he went to church on Sundays, but good Lord.

          Asking the first voice that answers the phone in the middle of the night where they should take the body. Man.

  2. Brin Friesen says:

    I can’t tell you how much I resent your charm and sense of humor like a monstrous case of hiccups throughout something so tender and observant as this piece. It’s a little more than I can take.

    Boy, very beautiful stuff. Breaks the heart. He’d be very proud of you.

    • Irene Zion says:

      Erika Rae,

      This was beautifully written.

      It’s a bit too close to home for me, though. When my dad died, he was silent and then after a short time made a noise so loud it was frightening. Sort of a loud “hoooph.” I miss my dad too.

      When we aren’t being all serious, could you please explain how you managed to SWALLOW bailing wire? I imagine it’s like barbed wire, but I don’t know stuff like that, city girl that I am.

      I was only able to check in because the internet is free in the hotel we just got to in Barcelona. We’re only here for a day and a half, though, and it’s 30 cents a minute on the ship we board soon. Not expecting to get a “take your time” from Victor.

      • Erika Rae says:

        Hey Irene – Barcelona, eh? Sounds wonderful!

        Right. The bailing wire incident. Let’s just say it involved a hay fight on a hay ride, lots of teenagers and involuntary swallowing. Sooo embarrassing.

        I had no idea he could “come back to life.” It was pretty harrowing. Sort of like the end of a horror movie. I’m glad he smiled or I would have been scarred for life.

        • Irene Zion says:

          Erika Rae,
          Since I am not home, I can’t get my hands on a book I read a long time ago. There is a book called “How We Die” by a doctor called Sherwin Nuland. The title may be longer than that, but that is how it begins. I hope I am getting this right here, it’s all from memory. In any case, he says that after a person dies, the lifeless body expels whatever is pent up inside it. He explains it better, since he is a doctor and it has been a long time since I read it. It gave me some peace, though, to learn that my dad was dead already when he let out that piercing moan.
          Look the book up. It’s quite fascinating.
          Still don’t want to talk about your piece.
          Lovely wording for a horrid situation.
          Life.
          Death.

        • Erika Rae says:

          Wow. I hadn’t heard that explanation before. Interesting. It was freaky. He full on sat up at a 90 degree angle during these convulsions THREE times. I actually thought he might fall out of the bed and felt compelled to rush to his aid. And then – I am a little ashamed to admit this – I was scared to touch him while this was going on. Repelled, even. It was terrifying. I think I’m going to need to find this book.

        • Irene Zion says:

          It seems morbid, but it really is written well and an easy read and extremely interesting. He’s written other books, but I’ve neglected to read them yet.

    • Erika Rae says:

      Thanks, Brin. Glad to see you in the ring, after all. ( ;

      Yeah, I felt really bad about making him choke. And yet, I know he would’ve laughed about it if he could.

  3. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    A lovely piece with the texture of life itself–its humor and horrors. I wasn’t present at my grandfathers’ deaths, but my grandmothers were. One smiled right before he died and said “Mama,” as if she were standing there waiting for him. The other passed with a smile, too. For some reason, knowing this gives me comfort. They were free, finally, no more pain.

    I wish I could see those patchwork jeans. Imagination probably doesn’t do them justice.

  4. Zara Potts says:

    Oh Erika.
    How beautifully you paint with words.
    I’m giving your Dad a little wave right now.
    I wish I could have seen those bellbottoms.
    He’s still the coolest cool walker ever. And I bet you’ve inherited it.
    xx

  5. kristen says:

    This piece reads like a chant–rhythmic and soothing–which seems very relevant to the experience.

    Nice work, you.

  6. Lenore says:

    this is my favorite thing you’ve ever written. you wrote your father so perfectly here. i just love this. seriously, well done.

  7. This was gorgeous. I love how you paced it–the structure, the song snippets, the breathing–and how well you executed it. Truly perfect, and what a beautiful, tender story. The interplay of the scarf and the scene setting, the prose description of your inner thoughts about the outer world . . . just really well done all around.

    Oh, and I love your description of your father the educator and traveler, the closer-hugger and walker of the coolest cool work. Would that we all be remembered with such generosity and love.

  8. Ronlyn says:

    Sis – you’re a phenom writer, and as always tear up every time I read the details of this night. However I have just one question at this point…there’s actually another “Ronlyn” out there??? :o)

    • Erika Rae says:

      Aw, thanks.

      And yeah! She’s an amazing writer here on TNB, which you may have figured out by now. (Yes, we’re talking about you, Ronlyn Domingue.) How awesome is that? TWO Ronlyns?

  9. tip robin says:

    Damn, Erika. Truly magnetic, this work.

    Your ability to put yourself in it, yet at the same time seem objective about the process is amazing. I realized this when I came to the point where you were tearing. It felt natural, part of the scene, but your words were not effusive nor shaky. When did this happen? I wonder how long after he died that you wrote this, because I guess any real closeness to it might obfuscate the objectivity you attained with this.

    That’s not to say it isn’t moving at all, quite the contrary, just very on-the-wallish yet within the entire scene. What an experience. Consider yourself lucky.

    Thank you for sharing it.

    Cheers.

    Kip

    • Erika Rae says:

      This summer marked the 5-year anniversary of his death. I actually wrote this (in a slightly different form) about a year ago. I would agree with you – no way I could have written about the experience right after it happened. There’s a lot of…processing…that had to be done.

      And it’s weird – the objectivity you mention. I really do think that when a person is in the middle of a crisis situation, there is a tendency to feel removed in a way. This may be a defense mechanism of some sort. I’ve heard people say, “I don’t know how you handled that.” or “You must be so strong” to people in hard situations. The thing is, the strength isn’t a prerequisite. It comes somehow through the experience. And part of that “strength” may not really be strength at all – it may just part of that distancing I think you may be alluding to. It’s a strange sort of disconnect where the reaction doesn’t quite fit the event.

      Thanks, Kip. I appreciate your thoughtful commentary.

  10. Oh Erika,
    This is such a beautiful story. You made me cry. I love that you looked up at the ceiling and waved! I always enjoy your posts here, but this is certainly one of my favorites.
    X!

    • Erika Rae says:

      I felt like such a dork after I’d done it! It’s just that people who have near-death experiences often claim to be looking down on the room from the ceiling. I guess I figured, “what if?”

      • D.R. Haney says:

        I also loved the waving bit. And there are many other bits and lines that struck me: “this planet’s crust”; “the lids of his eyes slammed shut like a curtain dropped at the end of a show”; the way you associate the smell of shoe polish with your father; and of course the tremendous final line. And those are just the ones that come immediately to mind.

  11. Erika, this is heartbreaking and startling in clarity and truth and at the same time full of light and even humor. You did yourself, and your father, proud. I was so touched at your very real and beautifully child-like response to waving goodbye/hello at the ceiling….

  12. That was a really beautiful thing you wrote. I don’t know how you managed to sing.

  13. Judy Prince says:

    I echo the wonderful compliments of everyone, Erika!

    Perfect descriptions, stand-up-timed goofy wit, the “grrrrr”-making nurse, your interleaved song lines [started my weeping] and that furrrball knitbit—-you married them all so very poignantly and effectively. Thank you so much!

    I think you’d appreciate Grace Carter and Holly Andres’s film short called “Dandelion”, a 2005 experimental that “explores the shared experiences of two women in relationship to the loss of their mothers”. It’s unique. Bear with my getting-to-it directions, Erika. After clicking the url I’ll give, then click “Portfolio” [top left]; immediately click “Video clips” [also top left]; then click “next” [bottom]….and you’ll get “Dandelion”. Well worth the effort! Start here: http://otherpeoplespixels.com/artists

    Thanks for motivating me to send in a poem to Guardian Poetry Workshop! Your earlier dad story moved me to it, as well.

    All best,

    Judy

    • Erika Rae says:

      Judy, thanks so much for inspiring me to polish this up. I got a few ideas from the Guardian Workshop, too. I sincerely appreciate your encouragement and kind words. I will most certainly check out this link!

  14. Judy Prince says:

    Oops, I forgot something, Erika. For Grace Carter’s film short, “Dandelion”, after clicking the url, click “Grace Carter” [2nd row right]…..and then all the rest. {whew!} Again, the url: http://otherpeoplespixels.com/artists

    Judy

  15. Oh, Erika.

    This was beautiful. And heartbreaking at the same time.

  16. Bradley Parker says:

    Erika,

    At your father’s bedside, you acted with more grace and elegance than I did when I stood by my father.

    This is a beautiful story; thank you for sharing.

  17. Why do I feel like I read this before? Had you posted an earlier version? This one seems more vivid. I remember this somehow. Please tell me I’m not completely loony.

  18. Oh, and, yes. This piece is very magical, as if you perfectly captured life. Not death, but life, and the final moments of it.

  19. Marni Grossman says:

    So gut-wrenching, Erika. Particularly this paragraph:

    “The sheets were thrown back from the bottom up, landing on him mid-chest to expose a pair of cancer eaten bird legs. Skin coating bone like a shroud. Notice the mottling pattern on his knees, they said. He doesn’t have long. It’s one of the signs, they said. I looked away from a pair of legs I did not recognize and wish I could forget.”

    I can’t imagine losing a parent. No matter the age, you’re never ready. My mom’s mom has been- for the past two months- in a sharp downward spiral. And every day she- my mother- seems a little more defeated. And this is at 54-years-old.

    You amaze me.

    • Erika Rae says:

      I’m sorry to hear about your mom. There is just nothing fun about witnessing that spiral down. I hate mortality. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Give her love every day.

  20. Dana says:

    This was wonderful Erika.
    I hate that you had a bad hospice nurse, but this line was pure gold: “Go check on the salmon, my eyes pleaded.”

    I’m so lucky to have both of my parents alive and healthy still. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Erika Rae says:

      It’s weird. My dad was always so healthy. Completely blindsided by that tumor on all accounts. He was 66 when he died. 5 years ago. So strange to think he’d be in his 70s now. His mother lived to 102. His father was 93. Never saw it coming. So many things I wish I could have done differently.

  21. Autumn says:

    Erika, this ripped my heart out. I have this overwhelming fear of my father’s death, and of missing it, and of being there for it.

    When my dad called me from the hospital–heart attack–I kept sobbing afterward. “He can’t die. I haven’t seen him in months!”

    I hope I have the serenity you did, whenever the day does come, as I know it must, but I hope that it is far away from now, and that I have time to fly home and sing to him, as you did. (Probably The Beatles though–I don’t Amazing Grace.)

    Really powerful stuff, Erika. We’re all blessed for having experienced it.

    • Erika Rae says:

      Thank you, Autumn. Yes, I’m not sure which is worse: missing it or being there for it. Both are life changing.

      I should have sung him St. Pepper’s Lonely Heart club Band.

  22. Wow, Erika, I had missed this one–I just saw it now because it was one of the related pieces at the bottom of my piece about my dad’s 88th birthday. What an incredibly powerful, moving piece. I absolutely started crying when you waved at the ceiling. Please don’t say it was dorky, even in jest. It’s beautiful. A little girl waving at her father–god, I’m crying right now just typing that. It conveys your love for him, and your eternal “daughterness,” and it also shows a beautiful optimism on your part that I only hope I can possess: some faith, even if not exactly conventional faith, that the dead remain aware in some way. I’m not sure I believe that at all, though I desperately want to.
    I loved this bit:

    This was not worthy of my father. My father was a dignified man. He was an educator. A traveler. An ambassador. A hard worker, a singer, a hummer, a whistler, a lyricist, an artist, a speaker, a laugher, a storyteller, a mediocre golfer, a horrible trumpet player, an even worse driver, but he was a doer, a believer, a hug-you-close hugger, and the coolest cool walker ever to walk this planet’s crust.

    Old age, illness and death are so, so unworthy of the people we are, and yet so eternal, so inextricable from what it even means to be a person. This awful paradox is all of humanity, isn’t it? You captured your father so well here, and so beautifully and with so much heart . . . and yet, I’m sure to you the rendering feels very incomplete.
    I can’t wait to finally meet you in Denver, btw!

  23. Erika Rae says:

    Thanks Gina. I’m sorry I made you cry. ( :

    I don’t know whether there is anything more after we die than anyone else. I do know that I want to believe there is. Since I don’t know about what lies after death, though, it gives me the teensiest room for hope. That’s what faith is for me: the hope that there is more. Sometimes it’s enough. Sometimes it isn’t. In the words of Fox Mulder: I want to believe.

    I’m looking forward to meeting you, too.

  24. […] Memories: of high school, of Youth Group, of the night her father died. […]

  25. […] — Erika Rae […]

  26. Mindy Macready says:

    He probably did move on at 11:55 but then he saw you wave, and had to come back and smile…then left. Imho

    You have power to show humor when relating this , really shows discipline …you are careing for
    the audience.

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